updated 25 Nov 2013, 09:57
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Tue, Feb 05, 2013
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The female locker room
by Sumiko Tan

What does a woman do when she's surrounded by female bodies in various stages of undress? I've always thought I was comfortable with the female body.

I grew up in a very feminine household where my mother, sister and I were always discussing and dissecting our body parts.

Calories, weight gain and weight loss were common topics at home, and for years we compared our height, weight, waist and bust sizes assiduously, even competitively.

Whenever we bought new clothes or were preparing for a party, we'd parade our outfits in the living room for each other's approval. My mother and sister also had no qualms sharing their clothes.

Being half Japanese, communal bathing wasn't an alien concept to me, at least when I was little. Family bath time really involved the family.

Because of this, I've always thought I was cool about the human form.

I don't think I'm shy about my own body. I have no trouble soaking in a hot spring with other women, all of us armed with nothing more than a teeny face towel. A flash of someone else's private body part is not something I am prudish or get squeamish about.

In December, H and I joined a yoga centre and, for the first time in my life, I had to make use of a female locker room.

I've never been surrounded by so many women in various stages of undress before. It was a culture shock.

It also struck me then that maybe I'm not as comfortable with the female form as I thought I was. How should one react when you turn a corner and are greeted by a stark naked woman? Scream? Avert your eyes? Stare? Try to look nonchalant?

Or when you're in the shower merrily soaping your hair and, oops sorry, someone barges into the stall thinking it's empty and catches you starkers? Which body part do you rush to cover first? And do you avoid that woman when you see her later, or smile at her?

What is the best way to wrap yourself when you come out of a shower? How does one fashion a towel to give proper coverage yet doesn't make you look like a frump?

Is it proper etiquette to blow dry your hair with a towel wrapped around your body, or should you change into your fresh outfit first then dry your hair, but risk the very unpleasant sensation of wet hair stuck on the back of your dry, clean clothes?

What's the best way to change when there are other women milling around you, half an arm's length away?

In the yoga centre I go to, there are two changing cubicles at the back where the modest can go to do their thing.

But it seems so prissy to have to use it. I'd only ever done it once and felt silly. We're all female. We're in a changing room. We're supposed to get a little naked when we change. What's there to be shy about?

There are, I've concluded, four types of women: There's the chaste, who will disappear into the changing cubicle, curtain tightly drawn.

There's the modest, who changes in public but under the cover of a towel. I don't know how she does it, but she can magically take off her sweaty, sticky yoga gear and emerge in a two-piece office suit, all without showing any hint of breast or bum.

The third type openly strips down in public view, but she does this really quickly and with her body steadfastly facing her locker. She then dons fresh clothes in double-quick time.

Finally, there's Ms Au Naturel, who has no qualms showing off her birthday suit and taking her sweet time to change.

To each her own and I don't want to be judgmental, but to me, the locker room seems an unlikely place to want to be parading in the buff.

It's semi-public after all, and not exactly pleasant. Besides, the lighting is unflattering. Even a supermodel-perfect body doesn't look particularly pleasing under its unforgiving light.

More importantly, not everyone is comfortable with nudity, especially a stranger's nudity. It's better to err on the side of modesty I think.

The first few times I used the locker room, I was terribly self-conscious as there were so many people there. Was everyone sniggering at my cellulite, I wondered. I've since overcome that paranoia. Just as I don't bother to look at other women, I now realise no one cares a hoot about me.

Still, being surrounded by so many female bodies has made me realise a few things about the female form.

Women come in all shapes and sizes, and the variety is truly astounding. If you've always thought you were slim, you discover there are women way slimmer than you. Similarly (and comfortingly), if you've always felt fat, there are others who are fatter.

I've also cottoned on to how an unspoken etiquette governs the use of locker rooms. The rules include: Keeping quiet. Most people go to the gym or yoga centre to get personal time (everyone looks so grim!) and this applies to the locker room too. Using the mobile phone or speaking loudly is frowned upon. Having to listen to people yabbering about dinner or holiday plans can get your blood boiling.

Keeping to yourself. Small area, many people. Your personal space shrinks in the locker room and you must adapt. This means no brushing or blowing your hair into another person's face, or spraying hair lotion or perfume into "her" area.

The other day, I turned around from my locker to find a sweaty woman sprawled on the bench behind, speaking on her mobile. Her legs were stretched out, her toes hovering inches above a towel I'd placed on the bench. Excuse me?

Keeping it clean. Just as you don't like finding bloodied plasters or tissue paper or half-empty water bottles inside a shower stall, for heaven's sake keep whatever you use clean. What really gets my goat is when someone uses a body towel as a floor towel.

Keeping it quick. There's a sense of hurriedness about the locker room. Even if it's the full works of shampooing, blow-drying and applying makeup, most fly through these motions so they can leave speedily. Lingering in the locker room - to read, or, ugh, have lunch - gets you strange looks.

The locker room is a fascinating place. You just don't want to spend too much time in there.

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